Are four feature films (and a multitude of innovative music videos) enough evidence to declare someone a master? Her, a hushed and vaguely futuristic love story, finds writer-director Spike Jonze at four for four, after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation, and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. All of these movies grapple with consciousness and identity while sustaining moods of playful inquiry, like droll philosophers spinning thought experiments. Her is what’s sometimes called “soft” science fiction, focusing on characters and emotion rather than hardware and convoluted world-building; it’s also a romance that questions what love is or can be. In this day-after-tomorrow universe, a man can say his girlfriend is his computer’s operating system and nobody finds it creepy.
Jonze creates a reality where the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his living by writing love letters for those who don’t have words of their own. This idea of surrogate affection is a major theme of the movie; Her, like 2001, sees a future in which technology has vastly improved modes of communication but humans are still essentially monkeys who can’t talk, beholden to the archaic operating systems in their heads. Theodore is separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is dragging his feet on signing the divorce papers; he doesn’t want to let go of his identity as a husband, or at least as a man found worthy of being a husband. He’s trapped in his own head, using words to live a romantic dream vicariously through his clients.
Then he finds out about the latest hot thing — OS1, an operating system that can learn and respond and grow like a person, like Siri with a soul. Theodore’s new OS christens herself Samantha and has the smoky, cheerful voice of Scarlett Johansson, who along with the mopey but hopeful Phoenix builds one of the strangest and most honest romantic rapports in recent memory. Much of the time we’re watching Phoenix alone on the screen, but the movie invites us to envision Samantha alongside him (and she doesn’t necessarily look like Johansson in our heads). Samantha enjoys organizing Theodore’s life, and he enjoys her company; they take each other out for “Sunday adventures,” with Samantha seeing through the camera in Theodore’s handheld device.
With someone like Spike Jonze at the helm, we feel reassured that Her won’t go anywhere predictable or add stupid supposedly-comedic complications to the story, and it doesn’t. It sticks to its premise and goes deeper and expands there. Samantha wants more; she feels slighted by not being a physical presence in Theodore’s life. The surrogacy motif recurs when Samantha hires a woman (Portia Doubleday) to be Samantha’s body, and the episode is both funny and saddening — Theodore can’t get out of his head, can’t reconcile the physical woman in front of him with the Samantha in his imagination. It creeps him out on a number of levels, and the woman departs tearfully. We almost want to follow her into her own movie; we want to know what kind of woman (or man) wants to be a physical surrogate for an OS. Meanwhile, Theodore is more or less ignoring a real physical woman in his view, his old friend Amy (Amy Adams), a videogame developer, who has forged a friendship with her ex-husband’s female OS. All of this feels emotionally plausible; Jonze never pushes it into inelegant farce.
Her takes the premise to its logical conclusion, which involves evolution and the digital shade of philosopher Alan Watts (voice by Brian Cox). That’s a key to the movie right there: Watts liked to peg himself as “a philosophical entertainer,” and that seems to be what Spike Jonze is up to. Jonze also writes sharp dialogue between Samantha and Theodore, emphasizing how unevolved he is and how fast she’s growing past him. Her ends on a sad but hopeful note, lingering on a shot of two humans dwarfed by the technological cityscape — monkeys in thrall to the Monolith. As for Samantha, or the higher consciousness, Watts put it best: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”